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UVM associate professor
Josh Bongard on drones,
Mother Nature and why we
needn’t fear a robot uprising.
By Melissa Pasanen
Photographed by Gary Hall
VL: In 2011, you received an award
for early career scientists and engineers
for which you traveled to the White
House. Why do you think your work
JB: The current administration is interested in robotics and things like 3-D printing as a way to re-energize manufacturing
in the United States. There is also President
Obama’s bigger vision about recreating the
Sputnik moment [because] excitement
about science and technology has waned
somewhat since then. The president asked
us, “There’s something about your work
that excites young people. Can you take
your work and get out into the community and involve young people in it?”
VL: When did you
first make the connection
between technology and
the natural world?
JB: Well, I played a lot
of video games as a kid, but
I was also interested in building
things, and I loved the outdoors and
animals. I was always fascinated by
how [animals] move and how complex
their bodies are, but incredibly
efficient and fast. Hollywood
showed us all these fantastically
amazing machines, but we didn’t
actually have them, and why not?
That question motivated me.
VL: Now you use computers to evolve
robots based on the model of natural
JB: Humans and animals are good at
changing what [they] do based on circumstances. We don’t yet know how to
make machines that do that, but Mother
Nature, or natural selection, has produced adaptive machines for billions of
years, and they’re very good, so why not
borrow that idea and teach the computer
how to evolve robots for us? The biggest
challenge is not to get a robot to do one
thing well, but to get one robot to be able
to do a dozen things well enough.
VL: What does this look like in practice?
JB: With our input, computers create
hordes of robots, and then we tell the
computer to select for certain traits, like
you’d select for milk capacity in a cow.
So we might tell the computer to select
for speed and agility ... or the ability
to reach for an object [or] distinguish
between objects. Computers are tireless;
they can test things over and over again.
The results aren’t always what we antici-
pate. We had a robot with four legs and
challenged it to learn to walk. We thought
it would evolve to walk like a horse or a
dog, but it moves more like a break dancer
doing the worm.
VL: What might adaptive, autonomous
robots be able to do for us?
JB: It’s hard to say. If you had asked
computer people in the ’80s what the
killer app would be, no one would have
said e-mail or Facebook. I imagine it’ll be
simple things like helping cut the lawn,
clean out your gutters, resurface your
driveway or fill in potholes.
VL: What about the fear that the
robots will someday turn against us?
JB: Long before we have to deal with
the ethical issue of the robot uprising,
there are lots of other ethical issues about
autonomous machines, like unmanned
drones in war. Those drones are not
autonomous yet, but we’re very close to
the point where we no longer need the
person to push the button. In the next
few years, we’re going to have to decide
as a society whether we will allow a drone
to shoot without requiring human
If you look at technology like smart-
phones and other mobile devices, it’s not
machines rising up and taking over, it’s
that our relationship with technology
is closer and more complicated.
Machines and humans, it’s not
going to be us and them; it’s
us together. We’re still figuring
that out. A